Speaking over a dodgy cell connection with Deantoni Parks as he takes in the expanse of Pacific Ocean during the afternoon, we can’t help but picture The Mars Volta’s newest member squinting into the waning sunlight, sand-encrusted board tucked underarm, like one of those O’Neill wetsuit ads.
The 34-year-old Brooklyn-based drummer was only teasing about surfing off Venice Beach, where he has been hanging out the last few weeks. The wave of creativity he’s been riding, however, is no joke. “I’m doing tons of writing,” he says. “I’m writing all the time, working with some amazing musicians, and meeting new people.”
Unlike other bands mining the fringes of rock, The Mars Volta are risk takers who actually sell records. Unfortunately, the band has a reputation for putting drummers through the ringer: Jon Theodore. Thomas Pridgen. Blake Fleming. Dave Elitch. All were accomplished, open-minded players who eventually gave up on trying to please Mars overlord Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. “I’ve never clashed with Omar,” Parks confides. “It’s just not even in our chemical makeup to do so. If we did clash, it would probably be the last time that we worked together.”
Parks has an edge, though. He has collaborated with notable musicians throughout his career, from Velvet Underground’s John Cale to artists as disparate as Meshell Ndegeocello, Sade, and Lenny Kravitz. “He really tightened me up,” Parks says of the time spent with Cale. “I figure if I can play with him I can play with anybody.”
Ranging from the hook-laden “Dyslexicon” to the dub-inflected “The Malkin Jewel” to the echo-y thrum of “Molochwalker” and the march-driven “Vedamalady,” it’s easy to see why The Mars Volta wanted a drummer who not only reacts quickly to Noctourniquet’s sudden left turns but also its bizarre rhythm concepts. Opener “The Whip Hand”’s oscillating elastic beat emulates, yup, the crack of a whip. Some of the album’s single strokes–intensive vollies are so ragged and ghostly it’s hard to glean where the human drummer ends and post-production begins.
When you’re as energetic and ambitious as Parks, you’re not sitting around hoping for the phone to ring. Forming projects and seeing who is brave (or crazy) enough to gravitate toward them is a better option. In the past few years, he got wildly experimental with Asteroid Power Up and his longtime project Kudu, newly rechristened Art World Killer, which has an album, Last Laugh, coming out soon on Rodriguez-Lopez’ label. An upcoming solo project, tentatively titled Touch But Don’t Look, is currently ten compositions deep. Now Parks just has to put drums on top of all of them. “It’s very Tony Williams–inspired,” he says. “It’s essentially an electronic album but not as crazy as Asteroid Power Up or anything like that, but it’s a very cool record that I’m very proud of.”
Yet another of Parks’ projects is Dark Angels, a remix project with Kudu alum Nicci Kasper. While Kasper gleefully butchers classic tunes from Prince, Blondie, Billy Idol, and so on, Parks plays acoustic drums over them. The duo’s latest mash-up is a Grateful Dead remix called Dead In The Dark, but the pair is not limiting its deconstructive mischief to music. “We’ll take a Marlon Brando screen test or interviews with Dolly Parton or Morrissey and put a score to it.” The drummer is currently in talks with officials at the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in Cleveland about the possibility of Killer Angels doing some live events, but nothing is firmed up yet.
While enrolled at Berklee, Parks got as much inspiration from everyday Bostonians as he did from instructors inside the school’s walls. Take Larry, a 60-something public transit worker and former drummer who worked at a T Station where Parks caught a transfer each morning. He and Parks would get into discussions on Elvin Jones, Max Roach, and other icons of jazz drumming. “He really showed me how difficult it is to have your own style,” Parks says of the Mr. Miyagi–like mentoring. “It’s depressing to a lot of people because they didn’t want to hear that, but I did. I want the truth so I can get somewhere faster. Don’t sugarcoat it. He was putting it in perspective for me, saying that, ‘You’re coming in after Tony, so what are you going to do? You can transcribe this [drummer’s parts] and you’ll get better, but you’re not going to be this guy.’ So search for your own truth and, you know, dig your own holes.”
With little to no idea how the hybrid of electronics and acoustic drumming on Noctourniquet will be handled live, it looks like Parks has dug a few already. “We’ll work it out,” he says. “I suppose it will be like a sample or two, something very simple. But we did a tour last summer just to test out the material and we didn’t even use any electronics so it was slightly different from the album, which is cool.”
As to his long-term relationship with TMV, Parks isn’t even thinking like that. What matters is the here and now. “Maybe it’s loyalty, or trust, or whatever it is,” he says. “You’re not always going to feel good about everything you play, so when you do you have to capitalize on it.”
In the world of crazy neo-prog, Deantoni Parks teaming up with The Mars Volta is sort of like if Jimi Hendrix joined The Beatles in 1968. The collective talent here is frightening. Just about every track has a moment that leaves you scratching your head, wondering what just happened, and questioning everything you knew about drums and rhythm. “Aegis” begins with a simple snare groove that, for any other band, would have been the cool, crafty part of the song. Here it's just a short introduction to the real madness about to unfold in the verses, beginning at 0:29.
Throughout Noctourniquet, Deantoni Parks drives The Mars Volta insistently without ever falling into a backbeat groove. Instead, he generates an enormous amount of rhythm, in general by creating patterns of extreme complexity and then at times ratcheting up their intensity to the point of melting everything down into a single eruption of sound. When appropriate, Parks scales down to fairly simple though still non-clichéd parts, as on “Empty Vessels Make The Loudest,” a 6/8 tune on which he hits the snare every fourth beat and otherwise plays soft mallet riffs on the toms. More often, he ties together the many elements of his band’s sound: His quick hi-hat taps on “Lapochka” mirror a synth sequencer arpeggio that surfaces and fades back into the mix. On “The Whip Hand” his work is maddeningly elusive; every detail is clear yet he seems to repeatedly shave fractions of beats here and there, inverting the basic snare/kick foundation or even knocking it cockeyed to somewhere between the beats. Much of this is hard to absorb, but in terms of concept and execution, every moment is a masterpiece.
Band The Mars Volta
Current Release Noctourniquet
Birthplace Newnan, Georgia
Influences Sheila E., Kenwood Dennard, Hamilton Bohannon
Web Site themarsvolta.com
Drums Gretsch (vintage)
Cymbals Zildjian (vintage)
Sticks Pro-Mark Heads Remo